Top critical review
A very well written book, mostly, but not always, convincing.
on 16 March 2018
Frank Reid, an Englishman who ran a small and old-fashioned manual printing press in Moscow, returns home one evening in 1913 to find a letter from his wife Nellie to say that she had gone back to England, taking their children Dolly (10), Ben (9) and Annushka (3) with her. His despair was alleviated soon afterwards by a message from a local station-master that the three children had turned up, without their mother, and were ready to be collected. Their mother had sent them back from Mozhaisk because she couldn’t cope with them without their nanny, Dunyasha. We learn only near the end of the book why she left.
Once we know the children have returned, there is then a lot of back-story: about Frank’s father, about the printing factory, about how young Frank had been sent for training to England and later to Germany, about how he and Nelly had met and had married, and about the political background in both England (the strikes and social unrest about 1911) and in Russia (the 1905 Revolution, the reign and assassination of Stolypin).
Back to Frank and the children. The nanny, Dunyasha, had left, and Frank was looking for another woman to look after the children. The manager of the printing works, Selwyn Crane, suggested a young woman called Lisa Ivanova, and Frank engages her. There will be complications.
The book reads easily and is sometimes often amusing; and the atmosphere and ways of life in Moscow are well-conveyed. Some of the characters are memorable (Selwyn, the office manager and poet, with his Tolstoyan outlook on life, or the two elder children with their outspoken comments); some, like Lisa, are enigmatic; while others, like the merchant Kuryatin, are caricatures. But I did not find the central character, Frank himself, very convincing, and I cannot believe in the episode in which he, very indulgently, deals with a student called Volodya who has broken into his printing works, fired a pistol when Frank arrived and badly damaged the printing frame; we only find out later why he did this. There is a rather pointless visit to Moscow by Charles, Nellie’s brother, whom she had briefly looked up when she had arrived in England but of whose present whereabouts he did not know. There is a mysterious and unexplained scene in the forest outside the family dacha. The story doesn’t really hang together, moves inconsequentially from one episode to another. There is of course nothing wrong with an unexpected ending – but the ending here is also largely unexplained – I say “largely”, because, in retrospect, just one sentence some chapters before makes the final sentence possible.